2020 global warming reduction targets pose an early test for Obama

by Steven Biel

January 7, 2009


President-Elect Barack Obama has made it clear in no uncertain terms that global warming will be a top priority for his new administration. In a taped message to the Global Climate Summit hosted by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on November 18, Obama said:

Few challenges facing America – and the world – are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear… I know many of you are working to confront this challenge… But too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office.

Couldn’t have said it much better myself. What a breath of fresh air. And not a moment too soon. 

In that address, he reiterated his campaign promises to "reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80% by 2050."

Here’s the rub. While Obama’s commitment to cutting emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050 is in the range of what the science says is needed, his 2020 goal of returning to 1990 levels is a bit behind the times.

According to the research completed in 2007 by the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to prevent the most catastrophic consequences of global warming, developed nations must reduce emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80-95% by 2050.

I know what you’re thinking. Obama’s 25-40% wrong? What’s going on?!?!

Well, no, not quite. There’s some apples to oranges going on here. Obama’s commitment to cut emissions to 1990 levels, which is based on legislation he cosponsored as a senator and was introduced before IPCC’s most recent findings became public, refers only to pollution here in the U.S. IPCC’s 25-40% refers to that but also additional emissions cuts achieved in developing nations with U.S. financial support, like funding the adoption of clean energy technologies in India or stopping deforestation in Brazil.

Now, we can’t solve global warming just by protecting trees. Would that it were so easy. We must break our dependence on fossil fuels and dramatically cut our pollution here at home as well, starting now. But we also must provide leadership and assistance so that we can get all the reductions that are needed worldwide.

It is critical that Obama bring his global warming plan fully in line with the science by committing to total reductions consistent with IPCC’s recommendations for developed nations. To do that, he needs to do two things:

1. sharpen his commitment for domestic reductions to at least 8-12% from 1990 levels by 2020; and

2. commit to achieving the additional reductions needed to reach that critical 25-40% range through international climate assistance.

You can help persuade President-Elect Obama to sharpen his short-term pollution reduction goals by going to and posting a comment on his "Open for Questions" page. Tell him that to prevent the worst effects of global warming, we need to listen to the best science. And that means 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020, no less. 

To solve global warming that’s the change we need.

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